Monday, November 23, 2015

The Witcher 3 Hearts of Stone expansion: a very short review

It's rather remarkable that I'm motivated enough to write a review of an expansion pack for a video game, but then again, The Witcher 3 is no ordinary video game, and the Hearts of Stone expansion is no ordinary expansion.

I don't spend anywhere near as much time playing video games as I once did; still, Steam's tracker will confirm that nearly all of my spare time over the last six weeks has been devoted to the enthralling Hearts of Stone adventure.

It's almost as though the base game were just giving the CD Projekt Red team a chance to warm up, and Hearts of Stone was the true expression of their craft. The characters are fascinating; the story is absorbing; the music and graphics and setting are just as beautiful as you've come to expect with this game.

It all starts with a good villain, and Hearts of Stone has a superb one: "Evil Incarnate," as one minor character informs us in a heart-wrenching recollection of how his life was destroyed by this creature.

This villain is one side of a Faustian pact-with-the-devil plot involving ruined aristocrat Olgierd von Everec, who, in a desperate attempt to recover from a youthful mistake and save his threatened marriage, makes a deal whose consequences he surely failed to anticipate.

"Beware of immortality," Olgierd tells us, "it's not all it's cracked up to be."

So what is in this expansion?

  • Miles and miles of new territory to wander and new locations to explore
  • A giant death-dealing frog in the sewers
  • An auction (bring a full wallet!)
  • A rune master from a foreign land
  • Shani, medic extraordinaire, with a complex story of her own
  • A bank robbery, in which you have to assemble a team and execute your plan
  • The full-and-detailed exploration of the life and affairs of the above-mentioned Olgierd von Everec, with long and crucial detours into the history of his wife Iris and his brother Vlodomir

And more, much much more.

My absolute favorite part, though, and probably the best-executed part of any video game I've ever played, is the stupendously wonderful wedding scene. Our hero (the witcher Geralt of Rivia) is rather a straight-laced sort who generally plays things quite close to the chest and doesn't let his guard down.

But as the story plays out, Geralt finds himself accompanying Shani to a friend's wedding.

However, Geralt has been "possessed" by the spirit of a rather carefree aristocrat, rather a rake in fact, who takes a completely different approach to attending this courtly event of high society, and the result is glorious! It's no lie to say that the events of the wedding found me laughing out loud at my computer, over and over again, as our hero finds himself (mis-)behaving in the most amusing ways.

It will be VERY hard to top Hearts of Stone, and somehow I think that, for some time to come, other games are going to seem drab and ordinary after playing The Witcher 3.

Happily, there is still next spring's Blood and Wine expansion to look forward to; what will those creative folk at CD Projekt Red think of next?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

It looked like nothing, and that was on purpose

A nifty short article on Wired about the demolition of E3: Watch Part of the Old Bay Bridge Implode.

Just after a lovely sunrise, a series of muffled booms shot across the San Francisco Bay, and a plume of water swallowed a huge chunk of the old Bay Bridge.

The chunk was once the E3 pier, a 20 million-ton concrete strut that reached from the water’s surface to the a foundation 50 feet below. At 7:18 am this morning 60,000 pounds of dynamite crumbled it into a hollow cylinder encased in Bay mud.

As the article goes on to explain, this was (deliberately) a very tame demolition from a spectator point of view. I was quite interested in this part:

Those two barges were a key part of the joy-killing efforts to conserve local wildlife. A series of hoses deployed from each sprayed the underwater portion of the pier in bubbles. "The bubble curtain is to contain the shock wave from the implosion," said Leah Robinson-Leach, CalTrans’ spokesperson for all things San Francisco Bay Bridge. To further spoil the fun (or protect people and structures safe from flying debris, again, depending on your perspective), the 80-by-140 foot rectangular top of the pier was covered by a huge steel and wood mat.

"Bubble curtain"? COOL!

I wonder if there is any underwater video of that part?

It is super-important to keep the San Francisco Bay as clean as possible, which is a real challenge given all the uses of the Bay.

So I'm pleased to see Cal Trans do what they can to avoid making matters worse, whenever possible.

And it was a cool little video in the article -- check it out!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

In which people discuss things I don't understand

The first link is REALLY worth a read ... very eye-opening and intriguing.

  • Uber's Drivers: Information Asymmetries and Control in Dynamic Work
    The Uber driver workplace is characterized by constant change and by remote management structures, such as algorithms, Community Support Representatives, and passengers, removes the governing responsibility for a reliable workplace away from a central actor – Uber as a corporate entity, or a singular managerial body. Drivers must compare the information they gather from their own experiences with CSRs, media reports, company statements, written policies, notices from local markets, and their own advice in forums as though there is a singular, sense-making machine at work. There are multiple authorities for what Uber says or does that drivers rely on because the Uber system provides the architecture for digital and physical points of engagement and interaction with different authoritative actors. As a case study in the emerging on-demand economy, our analysis of the Uber driver experience signals the need for further study of the social and technical dynamics of distributed work systems.
  • The Guilded Age
    Uber’s regulatory battles will, to some extent, pave the way for other services, be they car-hailing apps or delivery networks or privatized replacements for public transit or just other types of on-demand labor whatevers. Airbnb’s will free up, to some extent, Airbnb competitors. But because they’re first, and because they’re huge, and because their investors have lots of adjacent interests, these regulatory battles belong to them. This means our next laws regarding how people drive and get driven, and the next sets of rules determining what and where a hotel can be, will be written largely by these companies.
  • Airbnb Is Building An Army
    Airbnb policy staffers are already on the ground around the world. Lehane said in cities where clubs are founded, staffers will be called on to organize training, facilitate resources, and otherwise manage the beginnings of an international grassroots network. While most cities don’t have the same proposition system as San Francisco, which allows voters to weigh in directly on initiatives, he said he could foresee clubs supporting political candidates who are in favor of short-term renting and home-sharing in their cities. Lehane compared the potential political strength of Airbnb hosts and guests, of which there are over 4 million in the United States, to that of the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club.
  • Peeking Beneath the Hood of Uber
    In order to understand the impact of surge pricing on passengers and drivers, we present the first in-depth investigation of Uber. We gather four weeks of data from Uber by emulating 43 copies of the Uber smartphone app and distributing them in a grid throughout downtown San Francisco (SF) and midtown Manhattan. By carefully calibrating the GPS coordinates reported by each emulated app, we are able to collect high-fidelity data about surge multipliers, estimated wait times (EWTs), car supply, and passenger demand for all types of Ubers (e.g., UberX, UberBLACK, etc.).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Quite a bit more than the whole 9 yards...

In the annals of construction porn, this is an oddly mesmerizing little gem: an 8.5 minute condensed time-lapse video of the 16 hour foundation pour of the new super-skyscraper that's now underway in the heart of San Francisco.

Wired reports with more details: It Took 18 Hours to Pour San Francisco's Biggest-Ever Concrete Foundation

All that concrete did not slop down into an earthy void. In the weeks leading up to the pour, workers constructed a subterranean lattice of rebar—12 layers high, with six inches separating each layer. "We used 5 million pounds of number 18 rebar, the largest size available," says Tymoff. At two and a quarter inches in diameter, grabbing a bar of No. 18 is like gripping the fat end of a baseball bat. It took eight iron workers to lift each 45-foot segment into place. That cagework will act as the foundation’s skeleton, but during the pour it also served as a catwalk for workers holding the cement hoses or the massive vibrators used to ensure the concrete had no air pockets.

The hardened slab, in all its mightiness, is but half of the tower’s earthquake protection. It will keep the building from toppling sideways, but what about sliding back and forth? In a big earthquake, the ground is actually trying to slip sideways underneath the building. "You need something to keep you from changing addresses," says Joseph. Those somethings are called piles, in essence underground stilts connecting the building with the bedrock. In the lowlands of San Francisco’s Financial District, bedrock is 300 below street level. "We have 42 piles that go all the way down and are socketed 15 to 25 foot deep into the rock," says Tymoff.

And of course, for even MORE detail, don't miss the wonderful site run by architects Pelli Clarke Pelli: Salesforce Tower.

At its base, Salesforce Tower connects directly to the transit center, which will house 11 Bay Area transit systems. On top of the Transit Center and linked directly to the tower is a 5.4-acre public park, which will offer recreational, educational, and nature activities. The park has two roles: the future anchor of the neighborhood and a key element of the project’s sustainable design strategy.

Each floor of the tower will have integrated metal sunshades, calibrated to maximize light and views while reducing solar gain. High performance, low-​emissivity glass will also help to reduce the building’s cooling load. Cooling may be provided in part by heat-​exchanging coils wrapped around the tower’s foundations. The tower and transit center also include comprehensive water recycling systems. In addition, high efficiency air-​handlers will take in fresh air on every floor.

Or, if you just can't stand it, head on over to the skyscraper's own website run by Boston Properties, and keep up with the minute-by-minute progress on Construction Cam!

It's interesting how these giant construction projects go. A few years back, I was completely fascinated by the new Bay Bridge, and in particular by the custom barge-based floating crane that was commissioned and delivered especially for the project: the Left Coast Lifter.

Now the bridge is built (and in fact the old bridge is pretty well completely torn down and removed), and the Left Coast Lifter hasn't been around these parts for years.

But last week, when I was in New York, we happened to make a side trip (to Storm King -- that reminds me, I need to blog about that, too!), and we found ourselves crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge.

And there, what did I see to my delighted eyes?

It's the Left Coast Lifter!

Alive and well, it's happily sitting in the Hudson River in upstate New York, contentedly building the new bridge.

The folks on that side of the country call it the I Lift NY supercrane.

But as we whizzed by on the super-speedway I could still make out the words painted across the bow:

Left Coast Lifter

So there you go.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New York City, Fall 2015

It came to pass that we had the opportunity to spend 48 hours in Manhattan, wandering around and enjoying ourselves.

And so we did.

Manhattan is so big and complex that it would take months, years, perhaps your entire life, in order to really understand it.

But we didn't have that; we just had 48 hours.

So we had to concentrate, and pick a few things.

It so happened that we arrived in New York fairly late in the afternoon. By the time we had checked in to our hotel, it was already dinner time, so we went down to a nice (although quite busy) little restaurant in the East Village (just off St Mark's Place) for a nice meal.

After dinner we got back to the hotel, but we weren't quite ready to call it quits, so we went up to the 48th floor, where the revolving rooftop bar made a delightful location to have a drink before bed. It's a great experience; a fun touch is that the cocktail napkins are printed with a circular "skyline map" identifying all the buildings that you see, so that as you rotate around you can make sense of what you're looking at.

Assuming you're brave enough to actually look out the window, that is, and aren't just clutching your table and chair as tightly as possible (really? did I do that?)

Originally, we were planning to take a boating cruise in the morning; there are several of them which circumnavigate Manhattan, and it seemed like a relaxing way to see a lot of New York City (from the water). But the cruise was cancelled and so we didn't go; in retrospect, this was probably to our benefit, as the weather that day was misty and with very low clouds, so much of the city would have been hidden in the haze.

Instead, we made our way down to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and took the ferry to Liberty Island and on to Ellis Island. Although the weather was indeed gray and misty, in a way this rather enhanced the trip, as Liberty Island emerged from the clouds to our great delight.

We didn't have the fancy tickets to climb up into the statue itself, so we contented ourselves with walking around the island and looking at the statue from ground level, which was quite enjoyable.

Then we returned to the ferry and proceeded on to Ellis Island. Although it doesn't have the Statue of Liberty on it, Ellis Island is in many ways a much more interesting place.

Over the last few decades, the Ellis Island facilities have been converted to an immense and extremely well-organized museum, telling the story of immigration and how it built the United States of America.

The main building is 3 massive stories tall, and nearly all of it is museum. Even though many of the exhibits are straightforward, and we made an effort to move through in a lively fashion, it was well over an hour to see what we saw, and I think we saw barely half of what there was to see.

The ferry returned us to Battery Park, and after some wandering around, and some lunch, the weather had cleared nicely, and we made our way up to Central Park.

I was very interested to see the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, and I wasn't disappointed. It is quite nice, and it was filled with people like myself, stopping to look and think a bit before moving on, all of us quietly part of a shared experience.

The weather was glorious, so we walked around Central Park for several hours. We moseyed across from Central Park West to Central Park East, stopping at places like the Bethesda Fountain, the Hans Christian Anderson statue, the Model Boat pond, and the Alice in Wonderland statue.

Every so often we would wander out of the park, but the surrounding areas weren't as nice, so we just kept wandering back into the park, walking up and down the tree-lined paths, marveling at all the different things to see.

After a while we were tired, so we found a nice spot on the Upper West Side to sit for a while and rest and talk; when we were restored it was already getting on to dusk, so we made our way down to Lincoln Center to see the fancy theaters.

Later we made our way out to Rockefeller Center, which was already all lit up for the holidays. We tarried for a while, watching the ice skaters in the ice rink, and wandering through the enormous Lego Store.

It was dinner time, and my plan had been to find one of the up-and-coming Indian restaurants in the so-called "Curry Hill" neighborhood near 28th and Lexington, but instead we ended up at a very nice spot a little bit farther north in Murray Hill, where we had a fine meal.

The next morning, we popped out of bed again and headed back downtown to the 9/11 Memorial. Although we were both well-acquainted with the events of 14 years ago, neither of us had been to Manhattan since, so we wanted to make a visit to the memorial part of our trip.

This is an extremely dramatic and moving place, obviously, and the memorial accomplishes its task(s) well, I thought. The overall presentation is quite remarkable: from the street-level entrance you make your way down, down, down. The farther you go, the more dramatic and powerful the experience becomes, until you reach the very bottom, where the bulk of the exhibits and memorial materials are located.

I was pleased to see that, for the most part, the memorial lets the facts speak for themselves, and focuses its attention on the people who were most directly affected: those in the towers, on the planes, and at the Pentagon, as well as the emergency personnel who responded to the events.

The displays are physical and immediate, incorporating objects from the buildings themselves (the stairs, the foundation columns, the slurry wall, the steel girders, etc.) as well as objects from the people involved (equipment, personal effects, etc.)

The memorial uses multi-media EXTREMELY effectively, playing actual clips from television broadcasts, 911 recordings, cell phone messages, interviews with witnesses and survivors, etc. A particularly dramatic and moving exhibit tells the remarkable (if by now quite well-known) story of Flight 93, moving back and forth between air traffic control recordings, voice mail messages, and other information to let the actual participants in the story tell it, speaking from the grave as it were in some cases. I glanced into that room for just a moment but was instantly captivated, and 10 minutes passed before I could breathe.

We hadn't expected to spend long at the memorial, but before we knew it we'd been there more than 2 hours, and had to drag ourselves away and on. Although upon leaving I felt like I hadn't really learned anything I didn't already know, I still felt like my visit was valuable and I don't regret going for an instant.

We both really enjoyed wandering around the various Manhattan neighborhoods, and I think we could have done much more of this if we'd had time. Some are rather straightforward, like walking through the Financial District or down the canyons of skyscrapers mid-town.

Others are still full of personality and character, like Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village, Murray Hill, or Chelsea. We got just ridiculously lost wandering around Greenwich Village: one of my personal goals had been to visit the Village Vanguard, but we ended up abandoning that quest and moving on; later, looking on the map, I realized that we had stopped in a falafel shop that was, quite literally, across the street from the Village Vanguard, and hadn't even known it.

New York is definitely quite expensive, and eating and drinking there was not cheap by any stretch. However, the food was remarkably good, much better than either of us had expected, full of fresh and good ingredients, well-prepared, well-presented, well-delivered. If I could afford it, I could easily spend all my time just wandering around Manhattan, eating and drinking and looking about...

Another very nice surprise was how successful we were at taking the subway all over the island, even with very little advance preparation and zero experience with the things that it often turns out you need to know about a city's transit system.

The hardest part of using the subway turned out to be finding the stations from above-ground. Once you were in the station, though, everything was well-marked and easy to find and in remarkably good condition given the astonishingly heavy use that the New York City subways receive.

Trains ran regularly, loudspeaker announcements and display signs were clear and accurate, the system as a whole seemed to be basically clean and safe, and all in all it was much better than I had anticipated.

That said, the subway was certainly not as nice as Seoul's subway, which is perhaps no surprise because Seoul's subway is brand new by comparison. As compared to the London Underground, though, I thought that the New York City subway system was at least as good, and certainly not as complex.

If you find yourself in La Guardia Airport, and want to get into midtown, the NYC Airporter is just fine, and certainly a bargain compared to airport-to-downtown options I've used elsewhere.

If you want a place to stay, and are looking to be part of everything, the Marriott Marquis is right smack in Times Square, in the middle of the action, but once you duck into your room and close the door, it's peaceful and welcoming as can be. And boy is it convenient to get to anywhere else in Manhattan from that location!

Oh, and my wife got to go see Kinky Boots at the Hirschfeld on Saturday night, but you'll have to ask her about that (I was in Port Chester at the time, as we've already discussed).

Monday, November 9, 2015

Phil Lesh and Friends, Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY, Nov 6 & 7, 2015

Nowadays, in the world of music entertainment, the typical band has a stable and well-known roster of performers; those performers are the primary reason you choose to attend one performance versus another, after all.

And the typical tour has a stable and predictable program, drawn from an obvious repertoire; the most common justification for a tour nowadays is to promote a new album release, and hence it's almost universal to expect that the performance will consist primarily of material from that new release.

Phil Lesh is typical in neither way.

Lesh, one of the founders and the former bass player for the Grateful Dead, has evolved a most interesting and unusual performance style which he calls "Phil Lesh and Friends".

After more than 50 years as a professional musician, Lesh has an enormous number of musical contacts, as well as an extensive and diverse collection of material.

There are even those who give him credit for how the band got its name:

What matters for our purposes is that Wenner, arguably the 20th century’s most important and influential rock journalist and publisher, got his scoop on the band’s name directly from the its bassist, Phil Lesh, who played an important role in giving the band its name—it was at Lesh’s home that Jerry Garcia came upon the phrase "The Grateful Dead" in "a big Oxford Dictionary," as Garcia remembers it in Signpost. That may be why the name was so fresh in Lesh’s mind when he told Wenner "We’re the Grateful Dead."”

And, perhaps most importantly, he has wide-ranging interests and a genuine joy of performance, which drive him to find ways to continue playing and interacting with his audience.

So, his format (roughly) is this: every so often, Lesh contacts some number of his friends, who clear time on their schedule, and make some arrangements to meet and discuss and prepare.

Then, at the appointed date, and at the appointed location, Phil Lesh and Friends appear, and deliver their show.

It's never the same show twice.

You never know ahead of time who's going to be in the band (except, of course, for Lesh).

And you never know ahead of time what will be on the program (although, broadly speaking, you know what sort of material it will be, since after 50 years everybody knows what sort of music Lesh enjoys).

It's a pretty unusual format. And, given that Lesh is now 75 years old, and has had numerous health problems (liver transplant, prostate cancer, bladder cancer), you never know how much longer you might get a chance to see him in action.

And so it came to be that, mostly as an excuse for a far-too-long-postponed visit to my very oldest and dearest friends on the planet, we hopped on the plane and I came to be in Port Chester, New York, on November 6th and 7th, 2015.

It's worth, as a side-note, mentioning why, specifically, we were in Port Chester. Although the Capitol Theatre was famous, 45 years ago, as the site of some of The Grateful Dead's most famous shows, the theater had become disused and was idle until recently. However, as part of its re-opening, Lesh was named "musician in residence" and has been playing there regularly, and it is clearly one of his favorite places to play.

It's hard to over-state the difference between seeing a show at the Capitol Theatre versus almost any other that shows acts of this caliber. The theater holds fewer than 2,000 people; in contrast, when I saw The Grateful Dead in June here in California, there were nearly 50 times as many people in the audience, and we spent the time watching the show on 70-foot-tall video screens, for the most part.

But at the Capitol, the space is small and friendly and personal. You can almost imagine that you have been invited into their living room and you are sitting on the couch, listening to them play and sing and talk and relax.

Well, you and your 1,799 new best friends, that is.

So, on to the music.

During this particular event, Phil Lesh's friends were David Nelson, Barry Sless, Scott Law, Jason Crosby, and John Molo.

Of those musicians, David Nelson is probably the most famous. He might be best known for his group New Riders of the Purple Sage, but he also played with the Grateful Dead many a time back in the day; for instance, he plays the electric guitar on the recording of Jack Straw on American Beauty. As the group's web site recalls:

In the summer of 1969, John Dawson was looking to showcase his songs while Jerry Garcia was looking to practic his brand new pedal steel guitar. The two played in coffeehouses and small clubs initially, and the music they made became the nucleus for a band - the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

That same year, David Nelson, expert in both country and rock guitar, joined the group on electric lead guitar.

As you might expect from this line-up, the selection of music for the two shows included several New Riders songs: John Hardy's Wedding, Garden of Eden, Bob Dylan's The Wicked Messenger, and of course their signature song, The Adventures of Panama Red.

And naturally there were a broad range of Grateful Dead signature songs, including several of Lesh's own compositions: Box of Rain (which is a personal favorite of mine), Pride of Cucamonga, Mason's Children (which disappeared from the Dead's regular rotation long before I started following them closely), and Unbroken Chain, as well as Grateful Dead classics not so closely linked with Lesh, such as Jack Straw (led, as a delightful surprise, by Lesh's son Grahame Lesh on vocals and guitar), Uncle John's Band, Dire Wolf, Cold Rain and Snow, and Scarlet Begonias

Perhaps because of the musicians that were particularly present for these concerts, the music selection also drew from the Grateful Dead's long history of blues, bluegrass, boogie-woogie, and jug band traditions, including pieces such as Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, White Lightning, Loose Lucy, Turn On Your Love Light, and Not Fade Away

But most interesting of all, musically, I think, was the inclusion of three fairly unusual songs from an American musician who is not so well known at all, I think: Noah Lewis. Let's let's biography of Lewis tell some of his story:

A key figure on the Memphis jug band circuit of the 1920s, singer and harpist Noah Lewis was born on September 3 of either 1890 or 1895 (depending on sources) in Henning, Tennessee. Upon relocating to Memphis, he teamed with Gus Cannon, becoming an essential component of Cannon's Jug Stompers; the group made their debut recordings for the Paramount label in 1927, with several more sessions to follow prior to their final date in late 1930. On a series of sides cut in the first week of October 1929, Lewis made his debut as a name artist, cutting three blistering harmonica solos as well as "Going to Germany," which spotlighted his plaintive vocal style. Later recording with Yank Rachell and John Estes, as the Depression wore on Lewis slipped into obscurity, living a life of extreme poverty; his death on February 7, 1961 was a result of gangrene brought on by frostbite.

Lewis died before I was even born; this is OLD music as far as things go in American music history.

What is the "Jug Band"? Well, again, let's turn to's site for more information:

Jug bands united Appalachian folk with blues, ragtime, and very early jazz; they are best known, of course, for their novel, do-it-yourself instrumentation. The jug in question was usually a whiskey jug, and a player blew across the mouth of the jug to produce pitches in the bass register. Jug bands usually featured at least one stringed instrument from the Appalachian tradition -- guitar, banjo, and/or fiddle -- and used a wide variety of everyday, easily available household objects for rhythmic accompaniment. The most common were the washboard (whose slats were struck and rubbed in a way analogous to a snare drum) and the metal washtub bass, which was usually equipped with a broomstick and clothesline that produced the sounds. Other possible percussion instruments included spoons, gut buckets, bones, and saw blades; additional melodic accompaniment might have included a harmonica, kazoo, or even comb and tissue paper -- whatever was available and economical, really. Jug band music originated in Louisville, Kentucky at the dawn of the 1900s, but found its greatest popularity in Memphis, Tennessee during the '10s and '20s, eventually spreading to Ohio and North Carolina as well. Given the inherent playfulness of the instrumentation, jug band music was accordingly informal, spontaneous, often humorous, and rhythmically bouncy.

Jug Band music and The Grateful Dead have gone together for at least 50 years, of course, but it was quite pleasing to me to see the selection of three of Noah Lewis's pieces in Saturday's program: Minglewood Blues, Big Railroad Blues, and Viola Lee Blues.

The three songs have some interesting differences. Big Railroad Blues is a crowd-pleasing sing-along, a blues song with a light-hearted sense of irony and and humor, as our hero sings:

Well my mama told me, my papa told me too,
Now my mama told me, papa told me too,
Well I shouldn't be here tryin' to sing these railroad blues.

Wish I had a'listened to what my mama said,
Wish I had a'listened to what my mama said,
Well I wouldn't be here tryin' to sleep in this cold iron bed.

Minglewood Blues, on the other hand, as my co-worker "reb" notes, has a long and complex history. What or where is "Minglewood"? Well, The Old Weird America takes a stab at clarifying it:

The answer to where exactly is this "Minglewood" is a bit uncertain. I have read somewhere that it was a lumber camp near the Mississippi where musicians (including Noah lewis and Gus cannon) gathered on weekends to have a good time, and judging from the lyrics of the "New Minglewood Blues" that Noah Lewis recorded with his own jug band ("If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood"), it was a place in the city or close to it.
Make sure you follow the link from that site to The Myth of Minglewood for more backstory about Minglewood.

But, for my tastes, the best of the three Noah Lewis songs was the third one, the heart-breaking and beautiful Viola Lee Blues. This song meant so much to Lesh and the rest of The Grateful Dead that they made it the 10 minute long epic climax of their first actual album.

The wonderful Grateful Dead Guide site discusses the 50 year history of The Grateful Dead's history with the song, and how it morphed and evolved through the years; it's clear that it meant a tremendous amount to them.

Viola Lee Blues was the Dead's first big jamming tune. Dating from the start of their career when they were doing mostly pop and blues songs, they designed it as a psychedelic trip: it would start as a strange old jugband tune with dark chords, a constricted groove, and wailing black-harmony vocals, but the music in-between the verses would gradually stretch out to unreasonable lengths and start accelerating until the band were playing fast, shrieking gusts of sound, tearing open the fabric of reality -- then suddenly the noise stops and the song jauntily reappears again. As one writer has said, it may have been a one-dimensional song, but that happened to be the fifth dimension!

You can find many of The Grateful Dead renditions on the net, of course, but here's an alternate suggestion instead: listen to this wonderful performance by Jim Kweskin's Jug Band while you follow on with the lyrics here, since they're a bit hard to make out until you've heard the song a few hundred times:

The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it.
Clerk he wrote it down indeed-e
Judge decreed it, clerk he wrote it down
Give you this jail sentence you'll be Nashville bound

Some got six month some got one solid.
Some got one solid year indeed-e
Some got six month some got one solid.
But me and my buddies all got lifetime here

I wrote a letter I mailed in the air,
Mailed it on the air indeed-e
I wrote a letter I mailed in the air.
You may know by that I've got a friend somewhere

It's nearly a hundred years since Noah Lewis penned his sorrowful, tragic, heart-breaking tale of injustice, loneliness, and despair, but that amazing, glorious final verse, with its simple recognition that that simple act of writing a letter, of reaching out, of trying to communicate with some other human being somewhere else, has the power to overcome that cruelty and show the world that "I've got a friend somewhere."

This is

fast, shrieking gusts of sound, tearing open the fabric of reality

So even though there were lots of wonderful, wonderful things to remember about these shows, the sentiment of this majestic hundred-year-old song appealed to me on my madcap visit to my friends-of-four-decades, and somehow it seemed the perfect way for me to try to make sense of the entire experience.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Under the clock

I'm told that, nowadays, when people say "meet me under the clock," they mean the clock in Grand Central Terminal.

But, apparently, 70 years ago it meant the clock in the Astor Hotel: The Clock.

The Clock (UK title Under the Clock) is a 1945 American romantic drama film starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker and directed by Garland's future husband, Vincente Minnelli. This was Garland's first dramatic role, as well as her first starring vehicle in which she did not sing.

I'm always fascinated by how expressions like that evolve and change while still retaining that essential meaning.